*What did Jesus look like? Should we have artwork of Jesus? Are images of Jesus idolatry?*
(Read Part 1 of “Who Jesus Ain’t” here.)
WHAT DID JESUS LOOK LIKE?
The majority of what we know of Jesus’ life comes from the New Testament. And based on these records, other history, and plain ol’ logic, we know Jesus was not a white guy.
Ok, let’s be clear: We have no idea what Jesus looked like, including his skin complexion. Nothing in the New Testament describes him as “tall, dark, and handsome” or “fair-skinned,” “pale,” or “pasty.” But we do know he was not European.
Jesus was a Jew from Palestine, the region east of the Mediterranean Sea, a relatively thin strip of land between the sea and the Jordan River. Since people who come from that part of the world tend to have darker skin and hair , we can be fairly certain that many of those paintings we grew up seeing of Jesus looking like some fair-skinned, light-haired first century Brad Pitt are inaccurate.
In fact, the only other clue that I know of that gives us any idea about Jesus’ appearance comes from a book in the Old Testament written 700 years before Jesus’ life. The prophet Isaiah wrote about the “suffering servant,” which was interpreted before the time of Jesus as a passage about the coming Messiah. Isaiah wrote:
“For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty _ That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.
“He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face _ He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” (Isaiah 53:2-4)
Though this passage certainly refers to Jesus’ humble birth and life and the persecution he faced despite being a king, leading to his violent death on the Cross, do these verses also imply that nothing about Jesus’ physical appearance was overly impressive or attractive?
ARE IMAGES OF JESUS IDOLATRY?
Should we even have images of Jesus? This question came up in one of my seminary classes, and it was honestly not something I had thought about before. As any Jewish person will attest to, there is no question God makes quite clear in the Old Testament that there is to be absolutely no images made of him. Why? First, the God of the Bible is without form; he is immaterial spirit (a concept completely alien and incomprehensible to the pagan nations surrounding Israel and, later, the Romans). How can an idol be made of an invisible God? Secondly, any attempt to make a representation of God would “limit” a limitless God. In short, any image of God could not help but totally misrepresent God.
Considering this, I’ve started to lean towards the idea that we shouldn’t make images of Jesus. It’s like reading a wonderful book, and the images it paints in your head are absolutely amazing, but then Hollywood makes a lousy adaptation of it and the images in your head are forever corrupted by this poor interpretation of this book you love.
Secondly, artists have clearly misrepresented Jesus in their art, and whether this is their intent or not, it again “limits” our understanding of Jesus. Children growing up looking at this art are influenced by it. It also becomes a matter of us making God the Son (Jesus) in our image, not the other way around. When studying the Bible we must always make sure we are letting the scripture speak for itself; yes, we must interpret it, but we must strive to understand what the authors intended to communicate to their original audiences. We must not read our own beliefs – or what we want it to say – into it. Likewise, creating art of Jesus as European, African, or in any other non-biblical way does exactly this.
The negative effects of artwork of Jesus became clearer to me when a Muslim student of mine tried to point out the inaccuracy of Christianity based on European depictions of Jesus. I responded by telling him he was right and wrong: Jesus was not a European, so he shouldn’t be portrayed as one, but this idea of a European Jesus is not from the Bible. The Bible is clear: Jesus is a Palestinian Jew.
Finally, a counter view would be that since God himself gave himself an “image” in becoming a physical man, there is no harm in depicting God the Son (Jesus) in his human form. I understand this view, but because of the reasons I stated above, I’d still be extremely cautious in making any art depicting Jesus. Perhaps limiting it to a nondescript, silhouette would be as far as I would be comfortable going. In the classic movie Ben Hur, Jesus appears, but the audience never sees his face (See a clip here), and apparently Catherine Vos’s popular 1935 The Child’s Story Bible was offered with or without pictures for these reasons.
In a way, artwork has made stereotyped versions of Jesus. Is the picture going to be handsome Jesus with his shiny, flowing hair and perfectly-trimmed beard? Or stoic Jesus? Angelic Jesus? Or gentle “I love children” Jesus?
On the other hand, movies can be a valuable tool in teaching people about Jesus who may never read the Bible or go to a church. We should also consider the illiterate and missionaries reaching people who don’t have written languages. There are missionary organizations that actually create written languages for people groups and translate the Bible into that language for them, but this process takes about 25 years. Many missions organizations also use audio recordings, so the people groups can listen to the Bible when they choose. But we all know the expression “a picture is worth 1,000 words” and dramatization has proven to be a powerful way to bring the message of Jesus to others.
Should we make exceptions for missions work and evangelizing? Should we come up with creative ways of depicting the life of Jesus on canvas or film without giving him an “image”? Images are powerful — they have the power to lodge in a person’s mind — so we should proceed cautiously before making any sort of image of Jesus.
This is a difficult issue. I’m interested in hearing opinions since I haven’t heard much about this issue elsewhere. Please comment!